After World War II, in 1948, when the Japanese surrendered, the United States and the Soviet Union divided the peninsula–formerly under Japanese rule–into North and South, separated by the Demilitarized Zone or DMZ.
The U.S. and Western Europe supported the South; the Soviet Union and China were behind the North. The idea was to turn the country back over to the Koreans over time.
Ideology got in the way.
By 1950, with help from the Soviet Union and China, North Korea–in an attempt to reunify the North and South– invaded South Korea. The Korean War began.
President Truman’s objective to stop the spread of communism along with a quick response from the United Nations Security Council resulted in the U.S. jumping in to lead over 340,000 multi-national troops to oppose the invasion, and support the South.
In 1963, three years and 2.5 million deaths later, North and South Korea signed an armistice or agreement to stop fighting. The agreement left the borders of North and South Korea pretty much the same as they were before the war. A peace treaty was never signed.
After the Korean War, North Korea went forward as a highly secretive and isolated communist state with an aggressive nuclear program. They adopted a national policy of “juche” or self-reliance–which worked because the Soviet Union supported them. When the Soviet Union collapsed, and their aid stopped, North Korea couldn’t provide enough food for its people. By around 1998, corruption, overly regulated distribution of food and devastating flooding left several million North Koreans dead from starvation.
South Korea, on the other hand, went from an agricultural economy to a modern industrial power. Unlike the northern part of the peninsula, South Korea is poor in natural resources, with only about 30% of its land useable for agriculture. It was a traditional, feudalistic, agrarian, and isolated society. In the 1960’s, the country’s per capita income was lower than Haiti, Ethiopia, and Yemen and about 40% below India’s. The country depended on foreign aid just to survive.
But, for 50 years, South Korea’s economy has grown by an average of seven percent annually.
By the 2000’s, South Korea’s population has more than doubled. Education, industry and commerce developed, pulling rural populations into cities. Communications and media expanded. Transportation was modernized. And, a middle class of land-owners emerged, along with an expansion of women’s rights that included their right to own land.